By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sony Michel needs to do a little more with the football in his hands than he has so far. But it’s also not his fault that he’s getting the ball so much in the first place.
Michel is not an every-down back just yet, but he virtually split snaps with James White against the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night Football. And when he’s been on the field in his first two NFL games, he’s gotten the ball the vast majority of the time.
The Patriots’ surprisingly heavy usage of Michel so early in his rookie season – he’s carried the ball or been targeted on 29 of 36 snaps so far – begged a curious line of questioning. It indirectly came from Tom Brady himself after the Patriots’ 26-10 loss to the Lions.
Why isn’t James White playing more? Why is Josh McDaniels putting so much on Michel’s plate, when he doesn’t look ready to play the kind of role that White knows he can?
McDaniels was asked during his Monday conference call what he saw in Michel to use the rookie the way he did on Sunday. The offensive coordinator didn’t frame it as anything out of the ordinary.
“Sony [Michel] is certainly a guy that we – you know, he’s a young player who that’s his second game, including missing the preseason,” said McDaniels. “So, trying to bring him along, improve just like everybody else – nothing special or anything like that. We’re just trying to do the things that we feel like we can do to move the ball and make first downs and score points. Obviously, we didn’t do a very good job of that and that’s my responsibility. I need to do a better job and prepare our team to perform better this week against Miami.”
Part of Michel’s early workload is out of necessity. Jeremy Hill tore his ACL in Week 1. Rex Burkhead hit a roadblock when he had to recover from a concussion, was already playing through a slight tear in his knee, and is now reportedly dealing with a neck issue. White has never been an ideal option to run between the tackles and he’s important enough to preserve for later in the season.
So perhaps for only those reasons, McDaniels and Bill Belichick are aggressively trying to get Michel up to speed sooner than expected. Considering the circumstances, it’s hard to believe that the Patriots wanted to get Michel this involved this early.
Still, that doesn’t explain handing the ball to the rookie three different times on third-and-1. The Patriots went 1-for-3 converting on those plays, netting a one-yard loss. Why not mix in a handoff to White? Even a direct snap? Better yet, why not keep the ball in Brady’s hands instead?
“We try to come up with the right things each week, in each situation – you know, practice them and then hopefully execute them properly in the game,” said McDaniels. “We felt like those gave us an opportunity to do that, and certainly Detroit did a better job of executing and defending us on those plays than we did. So, again, I take responsibility for all those things, and they didn’t work out so we have to do a better job of finding a way to make those short yardage conversions moving forward.”
Play-calling and execution were subpar on the two third-and-1 plays where Michel got stuffed. On the first stretch play, Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois knocked Shaq Mason to his knees and broke through to tackle Michel for a one-yard loss. On the second, no one accounted for Lions safety Glover Quin, who burst through untouched and corralled Michel at the feet. He got help from another former Patriot, Tavon Wilson, who shed Dwayne Allen’s block to make the tackle.
White is a far more proven option on third downs. As evidenced by his touchdown catch on 3rd-and-8 early in the third quarter, by far the best throw of the game for Brady and the best offensive play the Patriots ran all night.
It’s understandable that McDaniels wants to get Michel going. But it wasn’t necessary on three third downs in a game where the Patriots were struggling to execute as a team. The rookie in his second game ever wasn’t going to be the player to turn the team around in those spots. Not consistently.
Brady is looking for “guys who can make plays” in those spots, and he’s referring to the ultra-reliable veteran White. Right now, on third down anyway, they need White over the kid who didn’t have a preseason and is still working his way into regular season form.
Hopefully, the message is heard from Brady. Either way, the play-calling needs to improve as much as anything on the Patriots offense.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.